The October Revolution, Russia Occupation of Persia: WWI Soldier Viktor Shklovsky’s Sentimental Memoirs, by Michael Carson
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The October Revolution, Russia Occupation of Persia: WWI Soldier Viktor Shklovsky’s A Sentimental Journey: Memoirs, 1917-1922
by Michael Carson
“After the explosion our soldiers, surrounded by enemies, were waiting for a train to come for them; while waiting, they busied themselves by picking and putting together the shattered pieces of their comrades’ bodies.
They picked up pieces for a very long time.
Naturally, some of the pieces got mixed up.
One officer went up to a long row of corpses.
The last body had been put together out of the leftover pieces.
It had the torso of a large man. Someone had added a small head; on the chest were small arms of different sizes, both left.
The officer looked for a rather long time; then he sat on the ground and burst out laughing….laughing….laughing….”
October Revolution and the Russian occupation of Persia when we have forgotten so many other accounts of the First World War, those charnel-house memories of gallant-British officers at the Somme and Ypres? What does this young Russian commissar have for us today except for yet another account of yet another endless bloody war that few remember now and now one at all will remember in a hundred years?Why read Viktor’s Shklovsky’s Sentimental Journey: Memoirs, 1917-1922 a hundred years after the First World War? Why remember this account of the
For one, A Sentimental Journey’s perspective on the First World War is unique—difficult—not simply because of its various, diverse, and relatively obscure (from an Anglo-American perspective) experiences but because of its form. Shklovsky writes in stilted sentences, delays information, mixes up chronology. He claims he only wants to report the facts. He wants to become a primary source. But he insists the facts must be reshuffled, drawn out, ironically juxtaposed, removed from their logical spot in one paragraph and placed at the end of the next. He has a terrible memory. Here is Shklovsky on his brother’s death:
“He cried hard before dying.
Either the Whites or the Reds killed him.
I don’t remember which—I really don’t remember. But the death was unjust.”
A leitmotif, ignorance and naivety—a sort-of forced dramatic irony—winds through Sentimental Journey, disturbing and disrupting moments of solemnity and despair, moments that, as Cassandra says before her fated death in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, “that truly break the heart.” Here is Shklovsky in Persia, a commissar in the Army, tasked with pacifying the local population and keeping the Russian forces there from mutiny:
“One morning when I got up and opened the street door, something soft fell to the side. I stooped down and looked….Someone had left a dead baby at my door.
I think it was a complaint.”
Later Shklovsky demands through telegram that the Russian government withdrawal the Russian units stationed in a foreign country:
“Have inspected Kurdistan units. In the name of revolution and humanity, demand withdrawal of troops.
This telegram didn’t go over to well—apparently, it’s naïve and funny to demand the withdrawal of troops in the name of humanity.”
Occasionally the chain of ignorance gives way to clarity, as when he explains why the Petersburg garrison played such a prominent role in the February Revolution, contradicting pretty much every historian’s account of the insurrection:
“This may be childish, but I’m convinced that restriction to the barracks, where men torn from their duties rotted on bunks with nothing to do, the dreariness of the barracks, the dull despair and resentment of the soldiers being hunted down on the street—all this stirred up the Petersburg garrison more than then constant reversals in the war and the persistent rumors of “treason.”
His summary of the Russian experience in Persia will resonate with anyone who has taken part in ill-advised imperial projects:
“We had gone to a foreign country,” he says of his time in Persia, “occupied it, added to its gloom and violence our violence, laughed at is laws, hampered trade, refused to let it open any factories and supported the shah. And for this purpose we kept troops—kept them there even after the revolution. It was imperialism—what’s more, Russian imperialism, which is to say, stupid imperialism.”
And then the question at the heart of this Journey: what good is memory without responsibility?
“All our shrewd and far-sighted policies were for nothing. If, instead of trying to make history, we had simply tried to consider ourselves responsible for the separate events that make up history, then perhaps this wouldn’t have turned out so ludicrously.”
Like Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That, A Sentimental Journey is a sad book with much hysterical laughter. Graves’ famously dismissed his own memoir as a cobbled together hack job—“people like reading about food and drink, so I searched my memory for the meals that have had significance in life and I put them down…People like hearing about T.E. Lawrence, because he is supposed to be a mystery man…people like reading about poets. I put in a lot of poets”—for Shklovsky the cobbled together nature of the whole is not like Graves’ marketing technique, a satire on the system that made it possible. The cobbling together is no by-product or accident; it is the most important point of A Sentimental Journey’s structure.
Shklovsky was a formalist. He believed art had certain forms, patterns. The artist rearranged these patterns, delayed them, inverted them. “Formalism,” he said, “does not deny the idea content of art, but treats the so-called content as one of the manifestations of form.” His sentimental journey (itself a re-patterning of Lawrence Stern’s novel of the same name) takes the lopped off limbs of people and history and reconstitutes bodies. It places them in the wrong place. It makes the reader see the whole by making it un-whole, by distorting the corpse, disturbing to revivify, to, as he explains in his Theory of Prose, “make the stone feel stony.” He called this process “ostraniene” or “estrangement.” All writers worth reading estrange in one way or another, “return sensation to our limbs” by making what was familiar unfamiliar and alive. If they do not, they give the reader what they already have; they deliver them into the same old plots—the same old histories, the same old wars. They add more dust.
This writing process did not make Shklovsky many friends, either in the world of artists or those of memoirists. It has made him even fewer friends among historians and the later literary theorists who abandon language entirely for structure. But it has the advantage of being true. Artists—whether writing about war or not—do succeed in so far as they can manipulate forms of language, and their success depends less on the force of their content but how that content is manifested in form, in how assiduously they study and internalize the movements of syntax, the historiography of plot. Formalists resist, as Gerald L. Burns argues in an essay on Shklovsky, “the urge to experience an object as something other than it is”; they make the “stone feel stony” and consequently realize the truly subversive truth and possibility of art—that it does not merely imitate, that it can at its best, as Shklovsky contends in his “Theory of Prose,” “incite insurrections among things.”
But the content cannot speak for itself. Shklovsky dismissed most accounts of the war. He mocked Barbusse’s 1916 novel of the trenches. “Contrived,” he said. “Glossy.” Barbusse’s novel did not have a sense of what happened—“with its jumble of corpses, its end washed away by various conclusions.”
Shklovsky understood that writing about war, and writing generally, must not be a jumble of corpses; life might be random, but art must be, above all, precise, meticulous. This is what the artist does. This is what a human can do in the face of the immensity and horror of so much relentless blood and history, so many disproportionate parts, so many competing claims to truth: they cannot give themselves over to representations and interpretations that dismiss through explication; they must both respect the thing itself and the artists role in manipulating the thing; they must make the stone feel stony.
“When you cut off a leg,” he says toward the end of A Sentimental Journey, “you have to cut through the muscles, pull back the flesh with forceps and saw through the bone.
Otherwise, the bone will eventually pierce through the stump.
If you don’t like this description, don’t make war. As for me, I’m ashamed to walk down the streets of Berlin and see the cripples.”
Shklovsky suggests that we might have little control over the sweep of history but we do have a responsibility to represent the particular and then to rearrange the particulars for maximum effect; memory in and of itself is nothing—it is all about how the writer arranges the memory; how she organizes the pieces; how the audience responds to the rearrangement.
But still. Why this particular account of war? Why should we remember the Russians in Persia when there were bigger battles? Bloodier massacres? Because “nowhere,” Shklovsky tells us, “was the inner lining of war, its predatory essence, so clear as in the crevices of Persia,” and it was clear, he argues, because “there was no enemy”; only there, in the sad corners, where forgotten armies disintegrated, starved, and marauded, where ancient enmities yielded slaughter and counter-slaughter, could you see the war, see war, for what it was.
And Shklovsky’s war—despite the memoir’s title—is not a sentimental one. His brother is killed and he does not remember who killed him. A bomb explodes in Shklovsky’s hands and he gives next to no detail as to the consequences. There are no enemies here, no friends. “No,” Shklovsky says after describing the American ambassador to Persia, Doctor Shedd, trying to get as many Aissor children inside his surrey, to protect the youth from the general butchery, to deliver them back to their fathers, “I shouldn’t have written that. It warmed my heart. It….aches.”
Unlike the American ambassador, Doctor Shedd, trying to get those children into the surrey, Shklovsky did not have a bucolic home and an orderly small town to forget the far-flung horrors of empire. He did not have the luxury of sentimentality. He was caught in the horror, both perpetrator and victim, both criminal and innocent (we don’t count corpses in the East, he tells the ambassador). Shklovsky was like America a hundred years later, like America in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Nigeria where the innocence of Doctor Shedd is only a memory, a pleasant memory, but a memory nonetheless.
But Shklovsky did have art. He did have the skill to make those corpses and human life something other than numbers, something other than a lie. He could make something comic and horrible and lovely out of leftover body parts. He could hold a bomb in his hands and watch it explode.
Vladimir Nabokov, another survivor of this wretched period of Russian history, caught like Shklovsky in a war that had no front, no rear, no perspectival dichotomy to control and assuage the violence like their Anglo counterparts, also like Shklovsky exiled (his was to last his entire life), once wrote a novel that accomplishes exactly what Shklovsky said art should accomplish; Lolita’s inspiration, Nabokov claimed, was an ape in the Jardin des Plantes, who, after months of coaxing by a scientists, “produced the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal: this sketch showed the bars of the poor creature’s cage.”
One more quote from Shklovsky:
“Of course, I’m not sorry that I kissed and ate and saw the sun. I’m sorry that no matter how hard I tried to direct events, they went their own way. I’m sorry that I fought in Galicia, that I got mixed up with armored cars in Petersburg, that I fought along the Dnieper. I changed nothing. And now, as I sit by the window and look at the spring, which goes past me without asking what weather it should arrange for tomorrow—which doesn’t need my permission, perhaps because I’m not from around here—I’m thinking I should have probably let the revolution go past me in the same way.
“When you fall like a stone, you don’t need to think; when you think, you don’t need to fall. I confused two occupations.
The forces moving were external to me.
The forces moving others were external to them.
I am only a falling stone.
A stone that falls and can, at the same time, light a lantern to observe its own course.
Shklovsky steals this from Baruch Spinoza. But what is art but the manipulating of old forms? Old ideas? Ancient juxtapositions? Enduring analogies? What is art but the moving around of the limbs we have left to us? What do artists do but—as Shklovsky contends in his Energy of Delusion—“convert both torment and joy into experience?” Transform and transmute this torrent of parts into content? Into life?
Few talk of Shklovsky anymore. Few talk of the Russian Persian garrison of 1917. Few know what to do with the leftover pieces. It’s just the way of things. There are new writers. New wars. New bodies. We continue to fall, trying, with poor Prufrock, to hear voices dying “beneath music from another room.” But we can still hold up the lamp, we can manipulate the forms, we can see our plummeting stone, illuminate the bars of our cage, convert the horrible sweep of long ago and ongoing violence into experience—clean the dead world, make it alive, make it hum, turn it to art.
Michael Carson served in the United States Army as an Infantry Officer, including a 2006-2007 tour of duty in Iraq, holds an MA in History from the University of Connecticut and an MFA in Fiction from Vermont College, and helps edit the Wrath-Bearing Tree, a site dedicated to exploring the causes and consequences of different kinds of violence. His non-fiction has appeared at The Daily Beast and Salon, and his fiction in the short story anthology, The Road Ahead: Stories of the Forever War, and Numéro Cinq Literary Magazine. He is currently working on a novel.